The Super Bowl ads are big business. Advertisers spent close to $4 million for each half-minute chance to catch our attention, and cleverly used social media to develop significant advance publicity by creating teaser ads. This was rewarded with news coverage that reached audiences far beyond football enthusiasts.
This attention means that we should be attentive to the subtle and not-so-subtle messages they convey to young girls and young men. These television commercials are created to entertain nearly 120 million viewers. It is exactly this reach and influence that should cause us to consider their real-world impacts. This includes the connection between how we view women when we seek to be entertained and how we view women when we arrive at school or in the workplace the next morning. It also affects how we view dads as role models at home.
The messages conveyed in these ads reinforce the conscious and unconscious biases that continue to keep women from reaching the top leadership positions in corporations, law firms, and academic institutions. Women are responsible for more than 85 percent of household decisions regarding how family consumer dollars are spent, yet constitute less than 15 percent of the membership of corporate boards which produce the products. And, ironically, women constitute even a smaller percentage of ad agency creative directors.
The top offenders during the commercial breaks for Super Bowl XLVII offered an array of women as fantasy objects, varying degrees of violence, and juvenile men of all ages. In a competitive field, here are three of the most offensive:
1. GoDaddy posed supermodel Bar Rafaeli sitting idly while character actor Jesse Heiman hunched over his computer, doing man’s work. Spokeswoman Danica Patrick, who has experienced more than her share of men questioning her abilities as a race car driver, stood passively, stating that when sexy meets smart, it creates a perfect combination. Heiman and Rafaeli then shared a noisy, close-up kiss while the screen read: “When sexy meets smart, your small business scores.” Huh?
2. Where Go Daddy’s sexism is blatant, Audi’s message is more troubling. Self-conscious male teen gets to drive dad’s nice car and becomes reckless —bad enough. But his rough and unsolicited kiss of the prom queen and her smitten response mirrors the romanticizing of abusive behavior that is the frequent underpinning of teen dating violence.
3. Handsome lifeguard beats up shark to rescue bikini-clad damsel in distress. Just as lifeguard is about to get his thank-you kiss, he is jilted when the rescued woman sees an astronaut on the beach and runs to him, instead. The point of this Axe ad is apparently that a woman will run in her bikini toward a good smelling astronaut. As a clever Twitter post noted: Women want to be astronauts, not smell them.
There is some good news. Social media is providing a powerful vehicle for calling out sexist Super Bowl ads in real time. MissRepresentation.org, whose award-winning film exposed how the media’s depiction of women and girls impacts the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence, created a Twitter hashtag to send a message to the companies: #NotBuyingIt. Throughout the Super Bowl, thousands of watchers tweeted their disdain for those ads which reinforced sexist stereotypes.
Women should also find strong allies in another group stereotyped in these ads for a different type of bumbling incompetence: men. In a posting discussing the sorry depiction of men in their roles at home, Brad Harrington, the director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family wrote, “men [in ads] continue to be mired in outdated, limiting stereotypes that pigeon-hole them as something less than whole persons.”
Nielsen recently reported that 91 percent of Super Bowl watchers are interested in the commercials. There is a lot of power in those viewers to influence future ads and to let the world know they are not buying it. By doing so, they will contribute to a workplace, and society, which does not objectify women, and a home front where men are competent and caring boyfriends, husbands and fathers. The E*TRADE baby deserves no less of a future.
Lauren Stiller Rikleen is president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and executive-in-residence of the Boston College Center for Work & Family.